MITCHELL, Ga — There is something big in the forests of east central Georgia, an antlered anomaly that ranges in the dead of night across miles of swamp, pine thicket and pasture. It may creep within sight of the glittering lights of human habitation but then melts again into brambled darkness.
In game camera footage it rises like a primeval ghost, a beast of shadow wearing an enormous crown of branching spines. The pupils of its eyes glow white in the images collected across a four-county area.
From the photos, state deer biologist Charlie Killmaster said that it appears the animal could weigh upward of 400 pounds, easily twice as large as the average native whitetail deer.
The first images of the beast were sent to Georgia Department of Natural Resources Lt. Brian Adams about a month ago near Mitchell – about two hours east of Atlanta.
In those first blurry, bad quality night time photos, the animal looked like an elk. Once a day time color photo was turned in, DNR officials recognized it as a red deer.
“Red deer have a much more reddish-brown colored coat where elk have like a tan-colored buckskin,” Killmaster said. “Male red deer have dark-colored manes or neck fur. The antlers are usually the tell-tale (sign) because red deer have what they call crowns at the tips of their antlers, a cluster of points. Elk don’t have that.”
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Adams said that the stag, or male deer, has very identifiable antlers.
“One side is a really good strong rack, and the other side is kind of weak with little points,” Adams said.
Red deer and elk share the same genus and can interbreed even though they are found in the wild on two different continents. Red deer are found across northern Europe. Neither can interbreed with whitetail deer found in Georgia.
Killmaster said that while it is possible that more than one of these animals is in the woods, they are pretty sure that all of the images are of the same stag.
“It blows my mind that this thing has made it this many weeks into the firearms deer season and hasn’t gotten shot yet,” Killmaster said. “He’s highly nocturnal and that might have something to do with it.”
Adams said that 99% of the photos he has seen have been taken at night and all of them have been on remote game cameras. As far as he knows, no one has seen it with their own eyes. Adams and Killmaster share a theory on why it is covering so much territory.
“He’s looking for love, but he’s the only one,” Adams said. “If he was home where there are more of them he would have already locked onto a doe that was in heat and that’s where he’d stay.”
Killmaster believes it escaped from a private deer farm near the Glascock-Warren county line. An individual there has been depopulating his herd over the last couple of years and thought he had removed all the animals from his property when he took his fences down this past summer, Killmaster said.
“He was pretty surprised and really didn’t think it was one of his,” Killmaster said. “He was pretty confident they had gotten every last one of them, but they’ll surprise you sometimes. Once we confirmed it was a red deer, that was the closest permitted location (the permit is still active) and that’s as close to a smoking gun as we’re going to get. He confirmed that he does not have any interest in getting the animal back.”
Mark Williams, DNR’s commissioner of natural resources, authorized the destruction of the stag in a memorandum dated Sept. 30.
“Because live capture is unlikely and no owner can be identified, this letter will serve as authorization for any legal hunter to destroy the animal,” Williams wrote.
His letter has been distributed among hunters in the area, and DNR officials say that they have contacted processors asking that if the carcass of the animal turns up to notify the state.
“Whoever kills it, they can have it, but we need to be able to test it,” Adams said. “The reason those things have to be permitted is because they come from out west and the last thing we want is for them to bring in some kind of disease that would wipe our deer population out. The main thing we worry about is Chronic Wasting Disease.”
Killmaster said that there are other diseases that farmed deer can spread, such as bovine tuberculosis.
“I don’t worry as much about chronic wasting with this deer because it is likely the offspring of an animal brought into this area many generations ago,” Killmaster said. “If there was anything that led me to believe that it may have been illegally imported then that would be a legitimate concern. Regardless, when the animal is killed, we need to test it.”
In his career, Killmaster said he has only seen maybe a half dozen cases where an escaped exotic deer species like this has spent any time in the Georgia countryside, and almost every one of those was after the animal was killed by a hunter.
“It’s hard to believe he’s still alive. It just amazes me,” Adams said. “He has to bedding down in the day and moving at night. He’s looking for love, but he isn’t going to find it.”